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Throwback Thrills 

X and Windfall

click to enlarge Trying to make a pre-pandemic wardrobe work on that first vacation.

X

Trying to make a pre-pandemic wardrobe work on that first vacation.

X. I've been a fan of Ti West's work for longer than I care to remember. Sometime more a decade ago, I heard him interviewed and was intrigued enough by what I heard to explore his work. Back then, due to his relatively brief CV, the ubiquity of DVD rental and the lost, sought-after abundance of free time, it was easily accomplished. If memory serves, he was promoting House of the Devil (2009) at the time, a delightfully lugubrious paean to the horror movies of his (our) youth. Before I saw that, though, I watched Trigger Man (2007), a micro-budget walk in the woods turned fight for the lives of three city boys who decide to give deer hunting a try. By that time, I was pretty well-soured on the found-footage-shaky-cam exploitation pictures that had grown so abundant following the (in hindsight, lamentable) success of The Blair Witch Project (1999). So, I was skeptical, if optimistic. But West did something imaginative, referential to shared interests and stylish; there was something essential and true to the spirit of independent cinema in it. It was also funny and scary without winking at the audience.

House of the Devil, with its more-elaborate production design and cinematic technique, is perhaps a better indicator of the trajectory of West's career and aesthetic, but it shares a sense of revelry and reverence for the form that, for the genre's ascendence, remain rare attributes. It's clear he understands what makes horror movies fun, that laughter and terror are almost-twinned catharses and that style springs primarily from imagination and technique, rather than wellsprings of cash.

West hasn't made a feature in six years, since In a Valley of Violence, a Western I failed to warm to and is probably worth revisiting. In the interim, he's directed a lot of television, none of which I've seen. But he's back in a big way with X, a supernatural slasher sex picture that both sums up and advances his body of work.

In Houston, 1979 (actually New Zealand in the midst of the pandemic), Wayne (Martin Henderson), the sleazily avuncular, surprisingly sage proprietor of a strip club, sets out into the hinterland with big dreams. He brings along Maxine (Mia Goth) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), dancers from the club with personalities as different as their looks, and Jackson (Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi), a three-tour Marine Corps Vietnam veteran with an abundant ... endowment. In tow are RJ (Owen Campbell) a would-be campus artiste who will direct and operate the camera, and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), recruited to run sound. The plan? To make a grassroots porno and ride the cresting wave of indie smut into stardom and wealth. No fair guessing how it all turns out for our heroes.

West is riffing here, quite deliberately, on the towering influence of Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but he's doing it with cleverly preemptive, self-aware technique. The cinematography by Eliot Rockett conjures the gritty but gorgeous visual poetry of Chainsaw, while the editing of some of the kills interpolates the absence of gore made so famous and effective by Hitchcock. And in an even more meta take on the genre's conventions, West takes on the trope of sex as punishable by horrific violence head-on, conflating porn and horror as the kissing cousins they once were.

It's smart without pretense, sexy in places, bloody as hell, entertaining and populated by characters with full identities, ambitions and struggles. And, if one stays to the end of the credits, there is the promise of more to come. R. 105M. MINOR.

WINDFALL is another throwback of sorts, or perhaps more fairly a movie that references a time when taut three-handers with more questions than answers were more frequently produced. From its languid, painstaking framing and camera moves to the creeping score to its Chekovian first-act gun, the movie operates with a formalistic cleanliness that is reinforced by the harsh, elliptical performances of the cast.

In the opening, a nameless man, credited as Nobody (Jason Segel), wanders through a rambling, empty, very California-style home. It becomes clear almost immediately that he doesn't belong there, except to rob the place. This effort is stymied by the arrival of the homeowners, a tech-gillionaire CEO (Jesse Plemons) and his wife (Lily Collins). The robbery attempt becomes an in-house kidnapping, with all parties eventually agreeing on a half-million-dollar payout to end the stand-off.

Tensions only escalate over the course of a long day together, though, as Nobody begins to understand the marital strains of his victims. Further, it seems he has targeted this couple purposefully, maybe because the CEO got rich designing software to downsize inessential corporate employees, which Nobody might have been.

Directed by Charlie McDowell (The One I Love, 2014), from a screenplay by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker, who seems to be enjoying a late-career renaissance, Windfall is a thriller in the lowest of keys, but one that uses the negative space of its narrative and the ruthless performances of the cast to transcend easy classification. R. 92M. NETFLIX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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